There is nothing comical about the power of humor. Many of the greatest leaders in history are reported to have had a good sense of humor, even those that might have also had reportedly great flaws. For example, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who was believed to suffer from clinical depression, was known to have a keen wit. Possibly using humor as an antidote to his melancholy, Lincoln had no qualm about using self-deprecating remarks to ease tension and bond with others. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also understood the power of humor. Of it he said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” The strong connection between humor and leadership was confirmed in a 2012 study by the Bell Leadership Institute in Chapel Hill, NC. The study found that when employees were asked to describe the strengths and weaknesses of senior leadership in their organizations, sense of humor and work ethic were mentioned twice as much as any other phrases. In the study, they surveyed approximately 2,700 employees in a variety of workplace settings over a two-year period. The obvious conclusion is that humor is a vital tool of leadership.
While it’s been said that laughter is the best medicine, it turns out that hilarity has not only real curative power, but also a number of other functions as well. It can be used for good. Humor can help a person bond with another person, release tension, set a person at ease, attract a mate or entertain a child. It can also be used to shed light on social issues in order to bring about change. But humor can also be used negatively to put a rival in his place, to camouflage outright aggression or to express an otherwise unacceptable thought. In the form of satire, humor can be used to mock and ridicule social and political institutions and individuals in the public eye. Indeed, humor has as many functions and styles as there are knock-knock jokes and variations on the “why did the chicken cross the road?” joke. So the key to using humor as a tool for success is knowing when and how to use it.
Tickle the Funny Bone
Sense of humor is an often-overlooked quality in leadership because it doesn’t seem quite as important as communication, experience, or knowledge. However, the best managers use humor to improve the performance of their direct reports. They use humor to spark their staff’s enthusiasm, deliver an honest message in a good-natured way, boost productivity, bring teams together, and see the light side of a situation. Humor can also ease a tense situation and add flavor to an otherwise boring agenda. It can also foster an environment of camaraderie and make a meeting or workplace happier. It allows employees to see their boss’ humanity. It is also associated with a high degree of emotional intelligence
People remember people who make them smile! But having a sense of humor is not just about being able to make a joke. It is also about being able to take a joke. And it also serves as a defense against fear and anxiety. That is why humor is an invaluable tool for everyone, not just leaders. It is a useful quality for anyone who has to deal with other people: coworkers, colleagues, customers, vendors, and even competitors. That includes just about everyone since few people have jobs that allow them to be total hermits.
In fact, a study from the Journal of Applied Psychology found that just one use of humor among teammates at work resulted in improved performance immediately, and then continued up to two years later. Levity also improves recall. It is often the shortest pipeline to the brain’s memory bank.
Humor Can Backfire
In today’s society, a good sense of humor is highly valued. We seek it out in others and most people are proud to claim it in themselves, perhaps even more than good looks or intelligence. If someone has a great sense of humor, it is assumed that the person is happy, socially confident and has a healthy perspective on life. It is also seen as a sign of keen intellect. However, seeing humor as a quality is a fairly recent viewpoint. In fact, admiration for the comically-gifted is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The ancient Greeks believed humor was essentially an aggressive characteristic. It was seen as a flaw, not a quality. And humor can be that too. Indeed, humor can be used in destructive ways. Less effective leaders use humor in negative ways – to show off, cut people down with sarcasm, and overly distract people from the task at hand. Teasing humor and put-down humor can be hurtful and destructive. William Arthur Ward once said that “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that can add balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.” Of course, that pole can also be used as a stick with which to beat others over the head. Insults veiled as sarcastic humor give the person a shield to hide behind but does nothing to protect the recipient from real, lasting damage to his self-esteem and his relationship with the passive aggressive jokester. Therefore, humor can be a double-edged sword. It can forge better relationships and help cope with life, or it can be corrosive, eating away at self-esteem and antagonizing others. The key, then, is to use humor discerningly.
Just how much wry wit and comic relief is advisable at work depends on the specific corporate culture of a given company. That said, there is an appreciation forwell-timed lightheartedness even in the stuffiest of boardrooms. A jovial atmosphere encourages innovation and smart risks, which lead to greater productivity. Use humor to:
1. Show your humanity.
When humor is used effectively, it shows that there is a real person behind the mundane professional business façade. Infusing laughter within the team fosters an open and honest workplace
2. Share the limelight.
It’s good to be humorous from time to time, but also allow others to be funny, too. It is just as important to laugh with others, as it is to make others laugh. The goal is to create a comfortable, productive atmosphere. It isn’t a competition to see who is the funniest. There is no prize for being “funniest employee.”
3. Diffuse tension.
The best speakers know to start any conference with a funny story or joke. An occasional self-deprecating joke or amusing anecdote can help to break the tension barrier in a meeting. Knowing that a person has the ability to be lighthearted establishes fertile ground for collaboration and cooperation.
4. Connect with a tough coworker.
Perhaps there is a manager or colleague that is very stuffy. Humor can be effective in breaking through the tough façade by adding levity.
5. Keep it positive.
Wit is good, but make sure it is not at another person’s expense. While it may be easy and tempting to take a potshot at a co-worker, the rule of thumb is that if the joke could be construed as being at someone’s expense, then it probably is. Instead, make a clever, lighthearted comment that can boost morale. Be sure that in a desire to engage some, the humor doesn’t inadvertently alienate another.
It may take awhile to develop a comfortable way to use levity at work, but it’s a worthy pursuit when used wisely and tastefully.
Quote of the Week
“Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.” Grenville Kleiser